Great Questions

Great questions for interviewing grandparents and other family elders.

Holding out hope during the coronavirus hasn’t been easy. Day after day we are losing people in our community, and the heartbreak doesn’t ease. The large majority are senior citizens; the elders of our tribes, gone with the wisdom and love they so naturally carry.

But within tragedy, there is opportunity. The chance to pitch in, help our frontline workers and keep our local businesses afloat. Closer to home, there is an incredible opportunity to hold on to the wisdom of our parents and grandparents by simply taking the time to talk to them. And more than talk, to listen to them. Pass the time, combat the isolation, capture a moment in time; what a gift.

To help start the conversation, Your Stories Ink is offering a series of Great Questions. We’ll be rolling out specific versions for different subjects, and are starting today with questions for our family elders. Let us know what you think! And by all means, send along other questions you’d like to see included; we’re all in this together.

If only…

Recently I was contacted by an acquaintance of mine, a former colleague whose cousin had just been diagnosed with late stage cancer. The prognosis was not good, he said; they might have a year with him, maybe a few months, they weren’t sure.

Having heard about the work I do, he asked about my availability to sit down with his cousin, who was apparently a man with many fantastic stories to tell. “He’s lived quite a life,” he said with a smile that showed how much joy those stories brought to his friends and family. I couldn’t help but smile too. What more can we ask when our time comes to a close than to have those we love remember us for the full life we lead? To have our stories bring them joy and comfort as they move through life?

He and I spoke about options, including that of personal interviews and the creation of a narrative transcript, foregoing a full book production. Often, especially in situations with an element of urgency, this can be an expedited process that captures one’s story with the same level of compassion and focus, but without the wait to see a final product. This, he thought, might be the way to go.

I gave it some time and reached back out to see if he had given any more thought to a possible project, and was told that the family was still unsure how to approach what is clearly an end of life narrative with someone who may not be ready to accept that final chapter. Hope can be the greatest of gifts not only for the ill, but for those whose love surrounds them; I certainly felt for their need to preserve that. Trust your gut, I told him, and I’ll be here if you need me.

Two weeks later I got the heartbreaking news. His cousin had passed away, the cancer taking him far more quickly than they had anticipated. In my mind, I saw the smile on my colleague’s face when he spoke of this beloved man, and I knew this loss was a brutal one. If only we had had time to connect.

Death is a part of life. As we get older, this is proven to us with increased frequency, nudging the idea of our own mortality along with it. Hopefully, this knowledge compels us to live our best life; to be true to ourselves, find the good in others, help wherever we can, and have a heck of a ride. Then perhaps we can be that memory that brings a smile before a tear, a laugh before an ache.

If you know someone whose stories do that for you, capture them while you can. Jot things down, record a note on your phone, anything to hold on to that little bit of magic they hold within them. You’ll never regret it.

~ Karen

Daughters

In 2004, one of the most popular songs on the radio was John Mayer’s Daughters. It actually went on to be named Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 2005. By then, my own daughter was just seven weeks old and had captured my heart as much as my son had two years prior.

I found myself thinking about the magic of daughters while working on two Christmas gift projects this past December. One was commissioned by a mother who had collected countless notes over the years, capturing funny stories or special moments during her two daughters’ toddler through school age years. Included were several photos that went along with the stories – the girls covered in mud looking mischievous, the girls hugging each other ferociously, the girls holding their tiny puffball of a puppy the day they brought him home.

Within the book, their mother wrote a letter to them, lovingly expressing how much joy they had brought her over those years and the reasons she wanted to compile such precious memories as a gift to them. Now both teenagers, her daughters will always have their early childhood days a page turn away; no doubt a gift that will offer comfort throughout their transitions as they go away to college, gain independence, and start families of their own.

The second gift book was conceptualized by a mother who had taken beautiful, professional quality photographs of the rooms and accents found throughout her home. Created for her two grown daughters, now in their twenties, it was a visual reminder that while they follow their dreams, home will always be here for them, and the memories they built together as a family will stay forever. Especially poignant were the images inspired by their beloved father, who passed away only a couple of years ago; gifts he made for them, expressions he used, or packed bookshelves that fed his insatiable appetite for reading.

Both books brought me true joy as I worked on them. Reading the stories of other families, absorbing the memories they cherish and the recollections they hold dear, brings about a human connection unlike any other. As a mother to a daughter myself, I knew that these four young women – two teens, two young adults – were receiving gifts from their mothers that would touch their hearts forever. Just another reason I love the work I do.

~ Karen

No Place Like Home

She can remember everything as if it was yesterday. And yet, nearly 70 years have passed.

My mom grew up in Canaan, a small town in upstate New York, living with her parents and three siblings in a home my grandfather built. There were farm animals to feed, events at the grange hall, baseball on the radio and life during wartime.

Now nearing 90, my mom’s short term memory is going, but her long term is clear as a bell. It’s interesting how that happens, isn’t it? She’ll forget what we talked about on our last call, or what she bought at the grocery store that day, but her childhood stories live on, almost as sweet for the smile they put on her face as they are for us as we listen to her.

Learning to ski on the back hills, wipeouts and all. My grandfather’s hunting cabin in Vermont, and the time my grandmother put a full bear skin over her head to scare my mom’s friends (and boy did she!). The times she and her siblings got in trouble for climbing inside the water wheel that powered the house.

Singing in the church choir was something my mom truly cherished growing up. I loved hearing those stories when I was a kid; I was in awe to hear that my mother was the one chosen to sing Ave Maria at Christmas Eve services. My mother, soloist!

Mom lives down south now, but I’m only a couple of hours from Canaan. After talking about it for far too long, we finally planned a day trip during one of her visits to Connecticut. It was a fall day in 2016, and the drive was beautiful as always. We drove down the street she grew up on, past the house where she babysat and around the grounds of the school where her parents first met. We drove along the lake she skated on with friends, and of course, made a stop at the Canaan Congregational Church.

We walked around the quintessential New England brick structure, peered inside, and took plenty of photos. Later, we wrapped up the day with a late lunch, choosing a restaurant on the shore of Quechee Lake where mom remembered shooting darts with friends back in the day. She shared stories of 1940’s Canaan with our waitress, who smiled listening to her fond memories. It was a truly special day.

One year later, in November 2017, a fire destroyed the Canaan Congregational Church. An anchor of the community since 1829, it was devastatingly beyond repair. In early 2018, the congregation voted to demolish and rebuild; in 2019 they approved designs for the new church. Renderings look lovely; it will be a modern structure with plenty of space for worship, meetings and even a wi-fi café.

But it will never be the simple brick church it was. Gone is the gathering spot that held such a special place in my mother’s heart. I’m so glad we made that trip, and that she got to see it one more time.

We never know when we see something for the last time. If it’s something that’s special to you, make that trip. Take the time, and those special places will stay with you forever.

~ Karen

The Sound of the Train…

I was visiting with my father recently, sitting outside on his patio, when we both heard a train whistle in the distance. A slight smile came across his face.

“Whenever I hear the train, I say, ‘Hi, Pop!’” he said, going on to tell me why.

My grandfather worked for the railroad. As the story goes, when he’d almost reached the end of his shift, he would blow the train whistle when he knew he was close enough to home for his kids to hear it. They would then run to the train depot to meet him as he got off of work, and they’d all walk home together. My big, strong grandfather and his gaggle of kids. 

My dad is 89 years old. His father died in 1957. But this wonderful story lives on daily, in the simple sound of a train whistle.

This is why I started Your Stories Ink. Because stories like these are what weave through the fabric of our lives, our histories, our wonderful occasions and inevitable heartbreak. Whenever I hear someone say they don’t have much of a story to tell, I immediately disagree. Everybody does. The ordinary is made extraordinary by the simple fact that it is your version of life and no one else’s. I rejoice in the opportunity to help people see that, and to help capture the stories we all want told and cherished for years to come.

I’ll be heading back up to see Dad soon, and I’ll be sitting down with biography clients as well. Whenever possible I’ll give a glimpse of my projects here in the Your Stories Ink blog. I welcome your feedback along the way!

~ Karen